Instead of serving as another focus for partisan rancor, the resurgent menace of al-Qaida ought to unify Democrats and Republicans around a common threat. [IMGCAP(1)]
It would help enormously if President Bush admitted upfront that his mistakes — including the decision to go to war in Iraq — stimulated al-Qaida’s recovery.
At the same time, Americans have every right to expect that Democrats, especially presidential candidates, come up with a coherent strategy for fighting al-Qaida — including its branch in Iraq — instead of just pummeling Bush.
A joint strategy should consist of a determination to keep U.S. forces in Iraq until the threat posed by al-Qaida in Iraq is defeated; greater efforts to create a democratic transition in Pakistan, al-Qaida’s present headquarters; and upgraded efforts to bolster the weak pro-Western regime in Afghanistan.
However, instead of treating the latest National Intelligence Estimate as a dire warning demanding unified thinking and action, it was treated as yet another occasion for partisan wrangling.
As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius observed even before the report came out, there’s every reason to fear that if a successful terrorist attack occurred in the United States, Democrats and Republicans would use it as an excuse for recrimination, not a cause for renewed determination to combat a murderous threat to civilization.
Democrats likely would charge, as they always do, that Bush diverted resources from fighting al-Qaida to invading Iraq, that he created a terrorist rallying point and recruiting ground there where none existed beforehand, and that he has inflamed Muslim sentiment around the world.
They’d be correct, of course. According to Lawrence Wright, whose masterful history of al-Qaida, “The Looming Tower,” reportedly is Bush’s favorite book on terrorism, “al-Qaida was essentially dead” in 2002 after its ouster from Afghanistan.
In a September 2006 New Yorker article, Wright cited a leading jihadist theoretician, Abu Musab al-Suri, as saying that “the American occupation of Iraq inaugurated a ‘historical new period’ that almost single-handedly rescued the jihadi movement just when many of its critics thought it was finished.”
As Wright says, “Jihadists fighting in the conflict in Iraq have been trained in vicious urban warfare against the most formidable army in history. They will return to their home countries and add their experience to new cells springing up in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and many European nations.”
And, as the NIE warns, al-Qaida’s Pakistan-based leaders “will probably seek to leverage the contracts and capabilities of AQI, its most visible and capable affiliate, and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the [U.S.] Homeland.”
The NIE also warns, “We assess that al-Qaida will continue to try to acquire chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems a sufficient capability.”
Wright told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt in April that “if you read al-Qaida the way I do, they see terrorism as theater, but also they have an appetite for blood. … They want to kill as many people as they can. So, they would like to have a big spectacular, and I think that’s one of the reasons we haven’t had smaller attacks in the U.S.”
Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that there well may be al-Qaida sleeper cells in the U.S., and a chilling report released last week by the Middle East Media Research Institute said that at least 126 jihadist Web sites operate out of the U.S.
Bush, instead of acknowledging his responsibility for exacerbating the threat of terrorism in an attempt to forge unity of purpose against it, insists on defending himself and assailing his adversaries.
In his speech Tuesday retracing the links between al-Qaida and the AQI, Bush said “some note that the AQI did not exist until the U.S. invasion — and argue that it is a problem of our own making. The argument follows the flawed logic that terrorism is caused by American actions.”
It does no such thing. It faces the reality that the terrorist threat to the U.S. is much worse because of the Iraq War than it would have been if the U.S. had finished off al-Qaida in Afghanistan in 2002 instead of allowing its leadership to escape to Pakistan.
And now, according to the NIE, al-Qaida has a “safehaven” in Pakistan, thanks especially to President Pervez Musharraf’s withdrawal of troops from the border area with Afghanistan last year.
The Bush administration publicly lavishes praise on Musharraf despite his failure to support the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai; his suppression of democratic institutions, leaving radical Islam as the only avenue for opposition; his failure to close down radical madrassa schools and his toleration — until this month — of the jihadist takeover of Islamabad’s Red Mosque.
So, as Democrats assert, Bush bears a lot of responsibility for heightening the threat. On the other hand, Bush is right to say that the AQI now is a menace, that it is tightly connected to al-Qaida in Pakistan — and that a precipitous U.S. pullout from Iraq would empower America’s enemies.
Some Democrats in Congress and presidential candidates advocate Iraq withdrawal policies that might leave enough forces behind to engage in “anti-terrorist” operations. But they certainly don’t emphasize that mission.
They also dismiss undeniable progress that Bush’s “surge” policy has achieved against the AQI in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Sunni tribal leaders now cooperating with the U.S. might well stop if they thought this country would abandon them.
The likelihood is that Bush cannot sustain the surge deep into next year because it would involve lengthening troop tours from 15 months to 18 months, triggering a revolt at the Pentagon. So a narrower strategy will be needed than pacifying all of Iraq.
It could be — and should be — decisively defeating the AQI, which would constitute a blow to al-Qaida worldwide.
There is an opportunity here for unified, bipartisan action. After all, Osama bin Laden wouldn’t ask whether Americans were Republican or Democrat before beheading them.